There are countless incredible experiences you can have in India. Trekking in Sikkim has to be one of the top. Forget the Taj Mahal and other touristy sights. Sikkim is out of this world.
This untouched Himalayan paradise is beautiful beyond words.
As well as its staggering physical beauty, Sikkim is also an ecological hotspot. A huge variety of animals and plants can be found here. It’s one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth.
This is largely because of the huge differences in altitude found across a relatively small region. Sikkim’s lowland valleys have a humid tropical climate, which changes to temperate, alpine, then trans-Himalayan cold desert, as you climb higher into the mountains.
Red pandas, wild cats (including snow leopards!), Asian black bears, yaks and Tibetan wolves are all found across Sikkim, as well as countless species of birds.
Where Is Sikkim?
Sikkim is a tiny state in the north-east of India, nestled in the eastern Himalayas. Sandwiched between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, it is both remote and relatively unexplored.
Prior to 1975, Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom. Today, whilst it is a fully integrated Indian state, it is both geographically and culturally distinct from the rest of the country. Most people here speak either Nepali or Tibetan, and share many cultural traditions with their Himalayan neighbours.
Why Go Trekking In Sikkim?
When you think of trekking in the Himalayas, the country that springs to mind first is probably Nepal.
True, Nepal does have extensive mountain infrastructure that is well geared up for foreign trekkers. Certainly more so than Sikkim. Nepal also receives far more tourists every year.
Sikkim, on the other hand, is relatively unknown in backpacking/trekking circles.
This is why it’s so awesome. You can trek for a whole day here and see very few other people. Far, far fewer than on the popular trails in Nepal.
It usually feels like you have this ridiculously beautiful place all to yourself. You’ll probably see more yaks than people.
The north-west corner of Sikkim is dominated by Mount Kangchenjunga (also spelt Khangchendzonga), the third highest mountain in the world (at 8,590 metres). This giant, its surrounding peaks and forested foothills make up Khangchendzonga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of the best treks in Sikkim are found here.
Best Treks In Sikkim
There are too many incredible treks in Sikkim to mention in this post. I’ve chosen a few of the best known and most accessible treks here to give you a flavour of the awesomeness that you can experience.
The historic village of Yuksom is the former capital of Sikkim. Its name literally translates as “the meeting place of the three learned monks“.
It’s also the gateway to Khangchendzonga National Park. Lots of treks start and finish in Yuksom, and it’s a good place to base yourself.
Note that it is mandatory to have a guide for all treks in Khangchendzonga National Park. You won’t be issued with the necessary permits without one. (For more on permits, see below.)
There are several companies in Yuksom which can help set you up with a guide. Mountain Tours & Travels is a decent option, and offers smaller group sizes (minimum 2 people) than most other companies. Expect to pay approximately US$50 per person per day.
The trek from Yuksom to Dzongri (and back again) is probably the most well known trek in Sikkim. It is relatively short (50 kilometres, taking 4-5 days to complete, roundtrip), and of moderate difficulty.
This route would make a perfect introduction to Himalayan trekking. It’s also a great short-ish hike for more experienced trekkers who are pushed for time but still want to experience fantastic scenery.
Yuksom lies at 1,780 metres above sea level. From here, you trek alongside the Rathong River, following a valley gently uphill through lush green forests. You’ll see varieties of orchids, rhododendrons, bamboo, ferns, fig trees, magnolias and banana palms. Keep an eye out for monkeys swinging in the tree tops.
As the valley narrows into a gorge, you’ll cross a few suspension bridges, then the path becomes steeper. After a fairly tough couple of hours, climbing up through the cloud forest, you’ll reach Bakhim (2,700 m). Here you can take a well-deserved break, eat some dal, and enjoy the view.
It’s then a relatively easy hike up to Tsokha (3,000 m), a small yak herders’ settlement, where you’ll probably spend the night. In clear weather there are great views from Tsokha, over the Yuksom valley and beyond.
You can either camp here, or stay in one of the trekking huts.
From Tsokha, you will climb through pine, magnolia and rhododendron forests. At points the path is rocky and steep, and you will notice the air starts to become thinner. The scenery is stunning though, and you can take regular rest breaks to enjoy the dramatic views.
With weary legs, you will finally arrive at your destination, Dzongri (4,030 m). Put up your tent (or nab a spot in one of the trekkers’ huts), grab a steaming bowl of dal, and celebrate.
But not too much.
The next day, you’ll want to wake up at least an hour before dawn…
Spend the rest of the day either relaxing in Dzongri, or start the long descent back to Yuksom.
From Dzongri it takes about a day and a half to get back down to Yuksom. Depending on your speed and preference, you can either spend the night at Tsokha or Bakhim.
Goecha La Trek
If you’re looking for a slightly longer, more challenging trek, look no further than Goecha La.
This is one of the most famous (and best) hiking trails in India. The trek is about 90 kilometres in total, takes 7-9 days, and is of moderate-to-hard difficulty.
The first half of the Goecha La trek is identical to the one above. From Dzongri (4,030 m), trekking uphill becomes more difficult, mainly due to the high altitude.
This is why most people choose to spend two nights at Dzongri, taking a full day to rest and acclimatise to the altitude. It’s not strictly essential. But by taking this time, you will significantly reduce the risk of altitude sickness later on (and so increase the chances that you’ll be able to make it to Goecha La). I’d definitely recommend it.
After leaving Dzongri, it’s a relatively straightforward, slightly downhill hike through a rhododendron forest to Thangsing (3,841 m). Spend another night here.
There's a trekking hut at Thangsing, or you can camp.
The next day, hike up to Samiti Lake (4,300 m). Or, if you’re still feeling fit, you can continue up through the glacial moraine to Zemanthang (4,450 m).
The higher you can get, the better. Though don’t push yourself too hard, as the next day is the toughest of the entire trek.
Spend the night at either Samiti Lake or Zemanthang (there's a hut at the latter).
After hopefully getting a good night’s sleep (high altitude dreams are WEIRD), you rise early to make the final push up to Goecha La (5,000 m).
It’s a long, tough slog, made much harder by the altitude, but at the top you’ll feel on top of the world. Even if you’re unlucky with the cloud and fog…
I’m told the views from the top of the pass are out of this world.
Most of the return trek is downhill and takes about three days. Depending on your pace, you can spend the night at any combination of the teahouses/camping spots that you stayed at on the way up.
Kangchenjunga Base Camp (add-on to Dzongri Trek)
Earth’s third highest mountain (after Mount Everest and K2) also has three base camps. Two are in Nepal, one in Sikkim.
The Sikkim base camp (also known as Chowri Khang) is located just below the foot of Rathong glacier, at 4,450 metres.
To get there, it’s a 10 kilometre hike from Dzongri. This can be done in one, relatively long, day. (See section on the Dzongri Trek for details of the first section of the trek.).
The Himalayan Mountain Institute runs mountaineering courses from Chowri Khang.
You can camp here, and return to Dzongri the next day, before continuing the trek back down to Yuksom.
When To Go Trekking In Sikkim
The best time to go trekking in Sikkim is from either March till May, or mid-September till November. The weather should be mostly clear and dry, and you will have fantastic views of the surrounding mountains.
The monsoon arrives in Sikkim in June, and rains fall for most of the summer. There is also usually a period of “winter rains” from December until late February.
It’s not a good idea to try and trek during the rainy periods. As well as the obvious (you’d get soaked), rivers can become difficult to cross, and the risk of landslides increases significantly.
How To Get To Sikkim
Getting to Sikkim is part of the adventure.
It is not currently possible to fly directly to Sikkim. The two main transport hubs for the region are Bagdogra airport, and New Jalpaiguri Junction railway station (“NJP”). Both are in West Bengal.
Domestic airlines fly to Bagdogra from various cities across India, including Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai.
NJP is a major railway station. You can take a long distance train to here from a large number of Indian cities.
Taxis and busses will take you onwards to various locations in Sikkim.
Transport Around Sikkim
Virtually all of Sikkim is mountainous. Unless you feel like splashing out on a helicopter ride, the only way to get around the state is via road.
Most roads in Sikkim are extremely windy and steep, due to the terrain. It takes a long time to get anywhere. But, on the plus side, the views out of the window are fantastic.
From either NJP station or Bagdogra airport, it’s 150 kilometres to Yuksom, where the above treks originate. This drive takes about 8 hours.
If you’re coming from Darjeeling, it’s 80 km, which takes 4-5 hours.
Some roads in Sikkim are sealed and in excellent condition. Others, less so. Either way, most journeys will take considerably longer than you expect.
The cheapest way to get around Sikkim is in a shared 4×4. These ply the routes between major towns and other popular destinations. Some leave when full, others operate on a fixed schedule. These change quite frequently, so it’s best to ask around for the latest info.
Another option is to hire your own taxi. This is more expensive, though you’ll be more comfortable and able to dictate the schedule. Guesthouses can usually help you to find a driver.
Permits Needed For Trekking In Sikkim
As anyone who’s travelled in India knows, this country loves bureaucracy.
All foreign visitors need to obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to visit Sikkim. Assuming you are travelling to India on a regular tourist e-visa, you can get the ILP at the border crossing into Sikkim. This is valid for 30 days initially (extendable once) and is free. Make sure you have (i) colour copies of your passport and e-visa; and (ii) two official passport-sized photos.
You’ll also need a Protected Area Permit (PAP) to do most high-altitude treks, including the ones up to (and from) Dzongri. These are only available through government-authorised tour operators, and require you to be trekking with at least one other person (not including your guide, which is also mandatory).
Finally, you must also obtain a Kanchenjunga National Park (KNP) permit in order to trek here. Your guide will organise this for you once you get to Yuksom.
This is India though, so these rules might change at any point. I recommend checking out sikkimtourism.gov.in for up-to-date info on permits before travelling to Sikkim.
What To Pack For Trekking In Sikkim
In order to enjoy trekking in Sikkim, it’s essential that you bring the right clothes and other gear.
You’ll experience a large range of temperatures, and need to be prepared accordingly. You must bring both light weight, breathable clothes, as well as warm stuff.
Days are typically warm, and you’ll probably be trekking in a t-shirt until you get up to higher altitudes. However, the temperature really drops at night, even in the valleys.
At higher altitudes, it gets colder still. Between 4,000-5,000 metres (i.e. from Dzongri up to Goecha La), temperatures often drop below minus 10 decrees celsius at night, especially later in the year.
Suggested packing list:
- Base layers – thin, breathable, sweat-wicking tops
- Thermal top and bottoms
- Walking trousers (not jeans)
- Fleecey pullover
- Warm outer jacket (e.g. down jacket)
- Warm gloves and hat (Sherpa hats are ace)
- Decent walking boots (make sure they are adequately worn in, to prevent blisters)
- Camp shoes / flip flops (optional)
- Decent waterproofs – top and bottoms
- Large rucksack ~70 litres (carried by a porter)
- Medium daypack ~30-40 litres (carried by you)
- Tent (tour companies / guides can usually lend you this, if you don’t have one)
- Warm 4-season sleeping bag
- Thermarest (or similar insulated sleeping mat)
- Reusable water bottle (e.g. Grayl Geopress)
- Wash kit / personal hygiene stuff
- Personal first aid kit
- Sunglasses & suncream
- Snacks (main meals are available at tea houses en route)
Level Of Fitness Required For Trekking In Sikkim
You certainly don’t need to be an athlete to go trekking in Sikkim. However, a moderate level of fitness is recommended, in order to enjoy the experience.
Most treks require you to be able to hike for about 5-7 hours per day, covering between 7 and 15 kilometres each day, depending on the altitude. The terrain is rocky at times, and there are often long uphill sections.
If you are concerned about your level of fitness, I’d suggest doing a few long day walks as practice. Try hiking up some smaller hills, carrying a light backpack, to test your cardio levels. If you can manage that okay, you should be fine.
However, one thing to bear in mind is altitude.
Many of the best trekking routes in Sikkim are at fairly high altitudes, which makes trekking more difficult. To reduce the risk of altitude sickness, slow your pace when walking at higher altitudes (especially over 4,000 m). Take regular breaks (including rest days, where appropriate), and drink lots of water.
Ethics Of Trekking In Sikkim
People are talking about sustainable tourism far more nowadays than they used to. This is a great thing.
Travelling can can be hugely impactful, not just on you, but also on the people you encounter and the places you visit. That impact can be hugely positive. But it also has the potential to be negative, even damaging, if not done right.
Clearly, we all need to maximise the positive impact, and minimise the negative.
This applies whenever and wherever you go travelling. But the stakes are particularly high when trekking in places like Sikkim.
Porters in the Himalayas are, sadly, frequently exploited and badly treated.
They are often poor people from disadvantaged communities. They do an extremely physically difficult job, carrying heavy loads up and down giant mountains, year after year. And they are horribly underpaid.
Please, help these guys out. Be kind to them. And don’t ask them to carry more weight on their backs than they should (7 kg per person, max).
And, yes, that means don’t carry loads of unnecessary crap with you on the trek. Take only what you absolutely need, leave the rest in the valley.
Sikkim’s ecosystem is unique, and extremely fragile.
There are a few easy, but very important things you can do to protect this amazing place.
- Bring a reusable water bottle. Ideally one with an integrated filter (the Grayl Geopress is the best one I’ve ever used, and goes everywhere with me), or sterilisation tablets. Do not buy water in disposable plastic bottles unless you absolutely have to.
- Avoid bringing single-use plastic where possible. There are no facilities for recycling plastic in the mountains (and even in the valleys, they’re not great). Up here, sadly, plastic is often burnt. This is obviously terrible for the environment. Stick to sustainable packaging wherever possible.
- Take all of your trash with you. Do not leave it at teahouses, the people who live there don’t want your junk!
- Pick up any rubbish you see on the trek. Try to leave the place even more beautiful than it was before you came.
- Use toilet facilities wherever possible. If you have to go in the wilderness, dig a hole and bury all evidence.
- Leave no trace.
Local people and culture
Respect local people and their culture. It’s simple.
Sikkim is a fairly traditional place. Respect religious symbols and items. Always ask someone’s permission before taking their photo. Treat everyone you meet as you’d wish to be treated, take cues from local people and, if in doubt, just ask! (Kinda obvious I know, but a surprising number of travellers don’t seem to get it.)
Don’t give money or gifts to children. It may seem like a kind thing to do. However, if kids become accustomed to receiving money or gifts from tourists, it encourages them to beg. This is damaging in the long run, both to the children themselves and their communities.
Pay fair prices. When in markets or arranging taxis, haggling is fair game (and often expected). But if a price seems fair, don’t try to lower it just for the sake of it. Do not try to haggle for accommodation or at tea houses.